Artist's impression of the Green Square town centre development.

What makes some places great and some places ordinary. What makes some neighbourhoods vibrant and others boring?

Great cities don’t happen by chance.

We all have our favourite part of Sydney. Neighbourhoods we love to visit, to hang out in, and, if we are lucky, places to live or work in. For some it’s the buzz of inner city Surry Hills or Newtown. For others it’s suburban neighbourhoods like The Spot at Randwick, Willoughby Road, Crow’s Nest or Haldon Street, Lakemba, to name just a few. These places have interesting things happening in them. There is good food, things to do, places to work, people to see. They are inherently interesting places.

And while each of them is in a different part of Sydney, and each has different characteristics and demographics, they have some things in common. Things in their DNA that make them special places – our favourite places.

The Committee for Sydney is interested in what makes some places great and some places ordinary. What makes some neighbourhoods vibrant and others boring? If we can identify the key ingredients of great places we might be able to replicate them when we build new places. Sydney will nearly double in size over the next 40 years and we are going to have to build a lot of new places. Let’s make sure we build great ones.

The first thing you’ll notice about the great places mentioned earlier is that they are in older parts of Sydney. This is both surprising and disappointing. In the last century we’ve made enormous leaps in technology and innovation. We have new modes of transport, smart ways of doing things, a dazzling array of devices. We are generally much better at making beautiful buildings now. But when it comes to whole neighbourhoods it’s almost as if we’ve lost some of our placemaking skills.

When you look closer at each of the great neighbourhoods in Sydney they have other things in common, things that make them attractive places to hang out in.

Being built before the widespread use of the car they are inherently pedestrian friendly. The streets are laid out in a grid pattern making them easy to navigate and explore.

They have a mix of uses, with lots of different things happening at different times of the day. They are places where people live, work and play. There are homes, cafes and bars, shops and GP’s offices, as well as community places like libraries and cinemas. Buildings are close together and densely packed with no places between them where nothing happens. They are high density but not claustrophobic.

These areas have both a sensible order to their structure, but also a variety. Think of King Street, Newtown. Each building is only two or three storeys and is roughly the same width. Yet each has a different fenestration, colour and ornamentation. They each have a different design but generally conform to the same building envelope. Having both “order” and “variety” is important. Too much order and places can be boring. Too much variety and places can be chaotic. Great neighbourhoods get the balance right.

Great neighbourhoods all have good connectivity to the rest of the city. They are easy to get to and easy to get around in. They have a variety of transport choices and while the car is an option it is not the only one. This is possible because they’re high density – but it’s important to remember that high density doesn’t always mean high-rise, some of our densest suburbs are no higher than five stories.

Most importantly, they are diverse places, with people from different backgrounds, ages and demographics. They are not monocultures.

Rarely do we include these key ingredients in new neighbourhoods, and if we do it’s often only by accident. In part, this is because placemaking is a public-private collaboration – good design doesn’t end at the edge of the building. Often the critics of development and urban consolidation are right when they say the new neighbourhoods we are building are either boring or chaotic, don’t fit in to the existing area, or are snarled by cars.

Sydney has been resting on its laurels for too long. We can’t keep relying on those great neighbourhoods our forebears built. Sydney is going to keep growing and we are going to need a lot of new development if we are to house those citizens. Let’s make sure what we build is at least as good as those places we currently love and cherish.

Michael Rose is chair of the Committee for Sydney.

2 replies on “Density done well and the DNA of great places”

  1. Michael, your article touches on so many issues, but doesn’t mention the C-word – culture, or the H word – “heritage”. These cannot be conjured overnight. Great places big and small reflect the people who made them, and they were arguably not all so “designed” as our new places must be. We know that great civic spaces – grand and local – evolve, often around much loved buildings and places which in our society, seem to have to be fought for, so often,
    rather than valued as key components of what might be.
    Great places are driven by more imperatives than fiscal return.
    Bob Moore

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